Imagine that you have a great idea for a short animated film. You have all the details figured out in your head — the plot, the characters, the setting, and even all the witty dialogue. All that stands between you and making your masterpiece is the animation part.
That’s a huge hurdle. There’s 3D modeling, texturing, lighting, physics, sound design — not to mention all the gear, computing power, and software required to render this stuff and put it all together.
But what if you didn’t need all that? What if all it took to make a professional-looking animated sequence was a VR headset and some imagination?
That’s precisely the idea behind Mindshow — an upcoming virtual reality storytelling platform from LA-based startup Visionary VR. We caught a demo of it a couple weeks ago, and it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
Dragging, dropping, and directing
“It’s a lot like a cartoon that you can walk around in,” says Visionary CEO and Chief Creative Officer Jonnie Ross, “but there’s a lot more to it than that.” In a nutshell, Mindshow is a VR sandbox that allows you to create virtual scenes, then animate them with your own body movements, voice, and imagination.
It’s like wearing a performance capture suit — but without wearing anything more than a standard VR rig.
The idea is that you start out with a blank VR canvas and a virtual palette — think Monet meets Minority Report. With this palette in one hand and a sort of magic wand thingy in the other, you then populate your scene with a setting, props, and characters.
And that’s when the fun starts.
Once you’ve set the stage, you can use your magic wand to sort of “jump” into the body of any one of your characters. When you do this, that character essentially serves as a full-body VR puppet. You see the world from its perspective, move its body parts as if they’re your own, interact with props, and speak through its mouth. You can even adjust the character’s facial expressions using the Vive controller’s touchpad. It’s very much like wearing a performance capture suit — but without wearing anything more than a standard VR rig.
It’ll take you a second to acclimate to your new body, but after you get the hang of it and you’re ready to start the scene, just hit record and give your performance. When you’re done, hit stop. The scene you just created will then be saved, and serve as the base sequence for you to build upon.
Mindshow gives you full creative control over what happens on set — so in addition to being the lead actor, animator, and set designer of this show, you’re also the editor and director. At any point in this process, you’re free stop, start, rewind, or fast forward. You can move around props, jump into other characters’ bodies, redo scenes, and even freeze time to work on your lines in front of a mirror.
You juggle a lot of different roles and responsibilities here, but somehow it’s never overwhelming or difficult. In fact, it’s actually quite intuitive and easy to create stories this way because the software does most of the heavy lifting for you. Mindshow takes care of all the technically complex stuff like lighting, texturing, character design, animation, and physics — which allows you to focus exclusively on the fun creative stuff, like acting, improvising, and telling a good story. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination.
It’s all in your head(set)
Visionary VR didn’t come up with such a brilliant and potentially transformative idea overnight. It’s the result of years of creative experimentation, problem solving, and tinkering.
“We ended up making this sort of Final Cut Pro suite for VR.”
Coming from backgrounds in film and visual effects, Mindshow co-creators Gil Barron and Jonnie Ross immediately recognized VR’s potential as a storytelling medium years ago — but because the technology was so new at the time, they were in completely uncharted territory.
“There were no tools to make VR back then,” says Ross. “We knew that we wanted to tell stories in VR, but we couldn’t really build the house without the tools. So, we had to build the toolset ourselves as we went. We made a whole animated short film, and by the time we got to the end of that project, we ended up making this sort of Final Cut Pro suite for VR, where you could film and edit VR movies inside the headset.”
Oddly enough, Barron and Ross didn’t realize the gravity of what they had created at first. They were so close to the problem that they couldn’t take a step back and see the forest for the trees. It wasn’t until they got a nudge from one of their colleagues that they realized the VR toolset they had created was more valuable than the VR content itself.
“There was a moment where we kind of had to get our of our own way, as storytellers wanting to tell stories in VR,” Ross explains. “We had to lay down our selfish interests, disengage from the ego that was driving us as filmmakers, and kind of put aside those stories and thoughts of what we ourselves might be able to create. We recognized that the much larger potential here, if we’re trying to figure out how storytelling works in VR, is to put the ingredients into the hands of the masses and let them show us.”
“That was when the company really started to find its purpose and Mindshow was born,” added Barron.
PUSHING THE BOUNDARIES
Barron and Ross are hesitant to share too many details about where Mindshow is headed in the future, but after you’ve experienced it, it’s hard to keep your imagination from running wild.
Right now, you can only populate your Mindshow stories with a modest selection of environments, props, and characters — all of which were designed by Visionary VR. In the future, however, users might be able to design their own elements — everything from landscape textures to character costumes — and potentially even share those designs with the community.
Mindshow could very well democratize VR content creation — and there’s no telling where that might take us.
“This is a user-generated content platform,” Barron explains. “We think creativity comes in many forms, we want to amplify it as much as we can.”
If Visionary VR were to open up the platform and allow users to generate, share, and remix each others’ creations, Mindshow could very well democratize VR content creation — and there’s no telling where that might take us.
Back when the internet was first created, the guys who invented it thought it would only be used as a communication tool for academics. At the time, they had no idea that in the future, their creation would be used for everything from trading stocks to ordering pizza.
Virtual reality is in a similar stage of its life right now. It’s still very young, and while we might have some foggy ideas about what the technology could be used for in the future, we’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s possible with it. Freeform creation platforms like Mindshow are exactly what we need if we’re going to push virtual reality into bold new territory and use it for more than just gaming or virtual tourism.
“This is all an experiment,” says Barron, “and I’m excited to see where it goes.”